My desire to travel was originally inspired by books. The television show The Amazing Race, however, goosed me into action. I loved seeing the different countries and cultures teams visited as they raced around the world (“…for one million dollars!”)

After I began my own series of travel adventures, however, I realized the “reality” shown on the Race wasn’t very real. Early seasons spent some time lingering over people and locales, and contestants experienced some cultural clashes, but as time wore on, the producers de-emphasized this stuff and the countries became convenient backdrops to stunts and challenges. (Last season seemed to be better, I should note.)

I’d kind of given up hope of finding a television show that actually imparted a sense of what it’s like to travel to other countries. Everything is too produced: glossy, slick, selective, exaggerated, unreal.

Last weekend, however, Kim and I discovered Long Way Round, a show from 2004 that follows actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman as they ride motorcycles around the world from London to New York. The series, which is available on Netflix streaming, is not glossy and slick and over-produced. Instead, it provides a fantastic sense of what it’s like to spend time in foreign places with foreign people.

Here’s the official trailer:

That doesn’t really sell it, I know. It shows prep stuff and not actual travel. The actual travel is fun. For most of the show, they’re not riding on asphalt. They’re riding their motorbikes through dirt and sand and marsh and rivers. They fall down constantly. It’s brutal.

Along the way, they see some amazing places, the likes of which we’re never exposed to in the U.S. What’s it like in southern Russia? In Mongolia? In Kazakhstan? McGregor and Boorman (and their team) film it. And they film their interactions with the people they meet, who are mostly warm and welcoming.

Here’s a scene where some Mongolian farmers welcome the crew to their home to try a local delicacy, animal testicles:

And here’s one where they meet abandoned children who live in the sewers of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia:

We’ve seen five of the nine episodes so far, and are eager to watch the rest. When we’ve finished Long Way Round, we’ll watch the sequel, Long Way Down, which follows McGregor and Boorman as they ride from northern Scotland to the southern tip of Africa.

If you’re interested in travel or motorcycles, I recommend this series. If you’re interested in both, I recommend it highly.

Bonus! I just found another clip on Vimeo. Apparently this is behind-the-scenes footage of a bit we haven’t watched yet.

18 Replies to “Long Way Round”

  1. I watched these a few years ago and I loved them, though I thought that “Long Way Round” was better than “Long Way Down”. Re-watching the testicle scene above reminded me of a conversation I once had with a friend’s girlfriend. She had been in Africa somewhere (I can’t remember which country) for a year to study, and when she went there she had been a vegetarian. As she met and interacted worth local people, she would be invited to their homes for meals, and as the guest of horror they would try and share what little bit of meat they got (and they had very little) with her, as it was considered a special meal for a special guest. She felt horrible refusing to eat it and actually ended up giving up her vegetarianism based on her interactions with these people. She no longer felt like she had the moral high ground to refuse meat when others worked so hard for so very little of it.

  2. Paul says:

    You might enjoy ‘Pole to Pole’ with Michael Palin. In my recollection it focuses more on cultural interactions and didn’t seem overly produced or glitzy.

  3. Kristen Wallway says:

    I loved Long Way Round, and agree with Tyler – liked it better than their second one. Fascinating!

  4. Norm says:

    JD- You might like some of Tim Severin’s books. Mult. Cnty Library has several.

  5. Both great shows! The (sort of) third installment is called “Race to Dakar”. Another not-to-be-missed is “Ewan McGregor: Cold Chain Mission”.

  6. JanetS says:

    “Long Way Round” remains my favorite documentary. Drama, excitement, camaraderie, enduring friendship. Such an inspiring story.

  7. If you want to eat balls, look no further than Eastern Oregon. They call them “Rocky Mountain Oysters”.


  8. Brian Setzer says:

    Here’s a summary video from someone who did it without the support crew. He has plenty more location specific videos as well.

    I did a motorcycle trip to Alaska in 2010 for 5 months hiking and camping the whole way and then went Mexico for 3 months on it last year. The best way to travel in my opinion. Now I’m in Buenos Aires and looking to settle here for this year. Maybe at the end I’ll look for a bike and ride it back north…

  9. Dan says:

    Paul above mentioned Pole to Pole. Michael Palin filmed a number of other travel videos as well. I’ve not seen all of them, but the four I’ve seen I’ve really enjoyed. They can be a little dated as the were mostly filmed in the 90s/00s I believe, but hold their own in this travel-lover’s eyes.

  10. moneystepper says:

    I watched this when it was originally on and found it hugely inspiring. Time for a re-watch I think!! Thanks for the reminder.

  11. Emily says:

    Is there anywhere to watch this show online?

  12. Charlotte says:

    Lonley Planet / Globe Trekker was the original Independent Travel show. I’m surprised you’ve never heard of them. Maybe you have but didn’t like them?

    This was the show that inspired us to do all our travel independently of package tours. Although we do some as necessary for safety or logistical reasons.

  13. bethh says:

    JD, the Mission Theater is showing something pretty cool on Feb 6th that falls into this category – it’s a woman who’s traveling around the world under her own power (bike, boat, kayak). It looks like she’ll be there in person talking about the adventure thus far.

    Looks amazing!

  14. chacha1 says:

    I don’t even ride a motorcycle but I really enjoyed the Ewan & Charley shows. Got them for my husband and we both watched.

    Mostly however I fear they reinforced my feeling that there are just a whole lot of places in the world that I don’t really need to go. I could never quite get over the feeling “this is something that only young strong men should do.” Two women would probably have been dead before they got across Europe. The feeling of un-safety was pervasive.

  15. Brandon says:

    Check out the books. They’re not a rehash of the videos and offer a lot of additional information — and fun, and adventure!

  16. Cat says:

    Another fan of the “Long way” series and “Race to Dakar” here. And I’m a girl that’s not really a fan of motorcycles but these are definitely travel related documentaries worth the watch! Loved reading the recommendations in the comments and glad to see others enjoying these type of documentaries, I’ll have to check out “Pole to Pole”. One I don’t see mentioned but have really enjoyed is “180 Degrees South”.

  17. Jen Patterson says:

    Thanks so much for the tip. I’ve watched an episode every evening since I read your blog and it has given me a wonderful vacation to look forward to after difficult days at work. Mil gracias jota de!

  18. Elaine Stageberg says:

    Long Way Round literally changed my life. I watched it in early 2011, after I had been plagued by a foot injury that had gone on for over 3 years and had robbed me of my basic independence because of how poor my mobility had become. Something about this documentary clicked for me. I decided that although I could no longer be a runner, I could start to walk/hike trails. I started this new adventure with a birthday trip to Arkansas in April 2011. Since then, I’ve gained so much strength and healing in my foot, set a goal to hike in every national park, and have made some of my best memories. I got engaged near the top of Mt. Rainier, I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon, I spent two weeks hiking the national parks of Utah, I hiked to Murchison Falls at the Nile in Uganda. My love of hiking spurred a love of travel that I consider to be one of the greatest gifts of my lifetime.

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